The novel is a collection of free-verse poems, making it a unique entry in the world of Children's Literature. The plot deals with its protagonist Billie Jo Kelby, a tomboyish, talented pianist, struggling to survive in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during The Great Depression. She has a kind mother, nicknamed Ma, who dies tragically, and a distant father, nicknamed Daddy. As the novel progresses, Billie Jo and Daddy learn to endure their tough existences, as well as the hole in their lives created by the death of Ma.
This novel contains examples of:
- Body Horror: The accident with the kerosene leaves Billie Jo's hands covered in third degree burns, and her mother in even worse shape.
- Character Development: Both Billie Jo and Daddy. Billie becomes a much stronger young woman, with a sense of purpose (i.e., her piano playing) by the book's end, and she forgives her father for the freak accident. Daddy is not nearly as stoic by the end of the novel; and he's found a new love in Louise.
- Crapsack World: Well, it is The Great Depression...
- Death by Childbirth: Ma dies giving birth to Billie Jo's brother, although in this case, it's not the birth alone that kills her so much as it just pushes her over the edge after she was already on death's doorstep from the kerosene accident. The baby doesn't last much longer.
- Death by Despair: Referenced. Billie Jo mentions that a woman died two hours after her husband. The official cause of death was announced as "dust pneumonia" but Billie Jo believes that she just couldn't go on without him.
- Death by Newbery Medal: Ma and baby Franklin. And averted by Daddy, who is treated for skin cancer near the end of the book.
- Death of a Child:
- Billie's brother Franklin dies a few hours after being born.
- It's mentioned that two boys were killed in a bad dust storm.
- Deceased Parents Are the Best: Billie Jo has a supportive and kind mother and an emotionally distant (though not terrible) father. The strained relationship between Billie and her father after her mother dies forms much of the book's plot.
- Disaster Dominoes: Ma's accident:
- Daddy leaves a pail of kerosene beside the stove without telling anyone.
- Ma mistakes the kerosene for water and pours it into the coffee pot, causing it to catch fire.
- Ma runs out of the house to get Daddy. Billie Jo starts to follow her, but decides it's a bad idea to leave the kerosene to burn uncontrolled in the "bone-dry kitchen", and goes back to get it out of the house.
- For reasons unknown (possibly because she had the same thought as Billie Jo), instead of continuing to run for Daddy, Ma turns around and also heads back towards the house.
- Billie Jo throws the pail of burning kerosene out the door just as Ma is coming back up the path, causing burning kerosene to splash on her clothes. The resulting incident leaves Ma horribly burned and near death (ultimately leading to the death of both her and the baby), and Billie Jo gets third-degree burns on her hands trying to save her.
- Doorstop Baby: In one chapter, Billie Jo writes about how a package containing a live human baby was found on the front steps of the church.
- Dream-Crushing Handicap: Subverted. At first, it seems like this trope will be played straight when Billie's hands are crippled in the freak accident, making it much harder for her to play piano. However, local musician and good friend Arley Wanderdale tries to convince her to perform in a city-wide Talent Contest anyway, and she does, winning third place. By the end of the novel, she's playing piano on the regular again.
- Drowning His Sorrows: After Ma gets disfigured in the kerosene accident, Bayard does this in a nearby town called Guymon to forget his life's problems, despite the fact that Ma is unable to do anything for herself and Billie Jo can't help her much due to how badly burned her own hands are. Billie Jo isn't happy about it, although she forgives him for it fairly quickly (at least, much quicker than for causing the freak accident).
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Well, not really a happy ending - it is The Great Depression, after all. But after a bookload of suffering, the surviving characters are much happier by the end than at any other point in the entire novel, especially Daddy.
- Escapism: In-universe, Billie Jo plays the piano as a way to escape her brutal, unforgiving life.
- For Want of a Nail: If that pot of kerosene wasn't in the wrong place at the wrong time, a lot of drama and heartache could've been avoided.
- From Bad to Worse: Things weren't so great at the beginning of the story, but once Ma dies giving birth to Franklin, that's when things really start rolling off the deep end.
- Frothy Mugs of Water: Averted. Being set in the 1930s, it couldn't lack a reference to moonshine. It also features Billie Jo's dad going out drinking after the accident.
- Gender-Blender Name: "Billie Jo" is a feminized spelling of a traditionally male name, given to her by her father who Wanted a Son Instead.
- The Great Depression: The novel takes place smack dab in the middle of this period, from 1934 to 1935.
- Good Parents: Ma, who as mentioned is very supportive of Billie Jo.
- Gossipy Hens: After her dead baby brother is taken away to be buried, Billie Jo overhears two women gossiping about the accident, focusing on Billie Jo's having thrown the pail of kerosene. She's furious and anguished that they don't mention the part where her father left a pail of kerosene out or the fact that he left her alone to go get drunk, but rather tell the story in a way that makes it seem like Billie Jo is the only one to blame.
- Hunk: Daddy; Billie Jo remarks on his good looks a few times. It's implied to be the reason why Louise fell for him.
- I Coulda Been a Contender!: Ma could have been a famous pianist. At least Billie thought so.
- Imperiled in Pregnancy: Ma is heavily pregnant when the accident happens. She survives initially, covered in burns, but dies giving birth.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Billie is a very downplayed example, but she does overcome her crippled hands to play piano, despite everyone's, including her father's, doubts.
- Intergenerational Friendship: Arley and Billie Jo. At the end, Billie forms this with Louise, her father's girlfriend, as well.
- Last-Minute Baby Naming: A tragic case. Billie Jo's baby brother dies before he's given a name, but the reverend at the funeral asks her father to posthumously name him. He doesn't respond, so Billie Jo speaks up in his place and names her brother Franklin after the President.
- The Mentor: Arley Wanderdale, who's more of a father figure to Billie than Bayard, her actual dad.
- Mercy Kill: A minor character has his cattle shot instead of letting them starve or suffocate due to the dust.
- Missing Mom: Ma dies near the beginning of the book.
- Most Writers Are Writers: Karen Hesse has gone on record to say Billie is a musician and a poet because she too is a musician and a poet.
- Not So Stoic: When Billie Jo and Daddy go to a town ball, he actually smiles and laughs. Billie is noticeably shocked. (Not in a bad way, of course.)
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Mad Dog received his nickname because as a toddler he loved to bite people's legs. His real name is never mentioned and not even Billie Jo knows it.
- Parental Title Characterization: Billie Jo switches from calling Bayard "Daddy" to simply referring to him as "my father" after the accident, symbolizing her losing faith in him. When she returns home and they reconcile, she begins calling him "Daddy" again.
- Political Correctness Gone Mad: In-universe, one of the Talent Contest contestants, Birdie Jasper, thinks this is going on when Billie gets a prize, claiming the judges are "just being nice to a cripple." The other performers disagree.
- Poor Communication Kills: Daddy leaves a pail filled with kerosene beside the stove without telling Ma what it is. She mistakes it for water and tries to use it to make coffee, causing the kerosene to catch fire. She runs out to get Daddy, but for reasons that are never explained, turns around and heads back for the house very quickly, while Billie Jo, not expecting her mother to be coming back so soon, throws the pail of still-burning kerosene out the door to stop the fire spreading through the house. The resulting accident leaves Billie Jo's hands and Ma's entire body covered in third degree burns, injuries that prove fatal to Ma.
- Second Place Is for Winners: Billie Jo is proud of herself when she wins third-place in the Talent Contest.
- Shout-Out: Billie Jo's teacher Miss Freeland sings in a performance of Madame Butterfly.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Way on the cynical side, even though the ending is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful.
- Sliding Scale of Realistic vs. Fantastic: As realistic as humanly possible, though it's to be expected, considering it's basically the kiddie equivalent of a Steinbeck novel.
- So Proud of You: Downplayed when Billie tells Ma she scored the highest out of the entire eighth grade on a standardized test.Ma: I knew you could.
- Sore Loser: The tap dancers pout into their mirrors after not winning at the talent contest, with Birdie Jasper claiming it's Billie Jo's fault she didn't win and that the judges were "just being nice to a cripple".
- The Stoic: Daddy was alway like this, but cranks it up several notches after Ma and Franklin die. He gets better.
- Strong Family Resemblance: Used tragically. Billie Jo resembles her father in both looks and mannerisms but is very little like her mother. After Ma dies, Billie bemoans that she wish she could see more of her mother in herself.
- Talent Contest: Billie enters one about halfway through the book; she wins third-place and earns two dollars.
- Teacher/Student Romance: A rare example between adults. After Billie Jos father begins going to night school, he ends up falling for his teacher, Louise. The book ends with them in a romantic relationship.
- This Is Unforgivable!: One of the main conflicts in the novel is Billie Jo refusing to forgive her father for leaving the pot of kerosene on the stove, as it lead to the chain of events ending in Ma's death. By the end, she has forgave him - as well as herself, for throwing the pot.
- The Runaway: Billie runs off westward but returns back home a chapter later after meeting a man who ran away from his family.
- Title Drop: An interesting variation, in that the Title Drop is repeated numerous times across the novel as sort of a literary leitmotif, rather than just said once or twice.
- Tomboy: Billie Jo herself, though considering her father wanted a boy to begin with, it's not that surprising.
- Tomboyish Name: Again, Billie Jo.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Billie's love of apples, which stems from her mother's apple trees, is noted several times. The book even includes a recipe for apple sauce in the afterword.
- Unnamed Parent: Averted with Billie Jo's father, whose name is revealed to be "Bayard". Also averted with her mother, who is referred to once as "Polly" (and "Pol" twice by her husband).
- Wanted a Son Instead: Billie Jo's dad wanted a son. As a result, he gave his daughter a Tomboyish Name and raised her similarly to a son.
- Wham Line:
I got burned bad.
- From the chapter "The Accident":
Ma died that day giving birth to my brother.
- From the chapter "Devoured":
She came to bring my brother back to Lubbock to raise as her own, but my brother died before Aunt Ellis got here.
- From the chapter "Blame":
He is rotting away, like my father, ready to leave me behind in the dust. Well, I'm leaving first.
- From the chapter "Midnight Truth":
I called Mr. Hardly from her office and asked him to let my father know... I was coming home.
- From the chapter "Something Lost, Something Gained":
Her name is Louise, she stayed by Daddy the days I was away.
- From the chapter "The Other Woman":
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Billie repeatedly tries to make her parents proud of her over the course of the book. She doesn't really succeed with her mom, but does with her dad when she returns home from her train ride out of Oklahoma.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Billie reacts this way when her dad drinks up all the emergency money in Guymon.
- Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Billie Jo's father wanted a boy, not a girl, which is why he gave her a masculine name and forced her to work on the farm.
- You Got Guts: When Billie returns from her short trip out the Panhandle, Bayard says this almost verbatim.Daddy: I didn't have half your sauce, Billie Jo.